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The Montana Innocence Project highlights the important work of like-minded organizations. Today, we are sharing the work of the Center for Restorative Youth Justice. Located in Kalispell, CRYJ works to reduce youth involvement in the criminal legal system through programming that integrates restorative elements and youth empowerment. Check out the Q&A below with CRYJ Executive Director Catherine Gunderson.

What is your mission? 

Providing a unique integration of restorative elements and youth empowerment programming, Center for Restorative Youth Justice envisions a community that values and embraces all young people by cultivating a climate of purposeful inclusion and non-judgement. CRYJ works with Flathead Valley teens, families, justice agencies, and school discipline teams to reduce youth involvement with the legal system. Together we address the root causes and impacts of harm, deepen connections and relationships, and empower each other to move through the world with equity and integrity. 

How do you achieve your mission? 

Restorative practices and teen empowerment! We build relationships and meet each teen where they are, focusing on harm reduction and working closely to support their pursuit of meaningful accountability. That process often involves reflecting with teens on their experiences or perceptions of the more punitive traditional justice system, and what a restorative alternative could mean for them. Accountability and support looks different for every teen – it often involves reflecting and processing in the context of peer workshop discussions centered on stress and mental health, anger and emotional regulation, school discipline culture, and substance use. Sometimes accountability looks like engaging in substantial preparation to sit face to face with the victim of their crime, with an opportunity to listen and be heard in a boundaried setting. The other piece of our work involves the adults that teens interact with outside of our doors. We’ve developed close partnerships with probation officers and school administrators to create structures that allow teens to engage in restorative responses to harm that cultivate belonging as an alternative to punitive practices that distance them from their communities and often lead to further justice system involvement.

Is there anything specific that you are working on right now that you would like to highlight? 

CRYJ is really excited about our “Teen In Residence” program. It’s an opportunity for a past participant at CRYJ to join the CRYJ staff in a paid apprenticeship. Our first “resident” just completed, and it was awesome to deepen our relationship with that teen, collaborate with him to develop workshop content, and see him flourish in a peer leadership role. We are currently onboarding our second teen resident, and are excited to begin working with her! 

We are also gearing up for an exciting summer mural project for the outside of our building in Kalispell. Right now, we’re asking teens questions such as: What does CRYJ mean to you? How would you describe this place to others? How can we translate that visually? What do you think a teen, nervous because they just got in trouble at school or with the law, would want to see when they pull up to our building? We’re excited to work with them, as well as community volunteers, on this project over the summer. Stay tuned for details about how to participate if you’re in the area! 

Do you have any specific achievements that you would like to highlight?

We recently hosted a teen art installation that walked visitors through different aspects of CRYJ’s restorative process. Family conferences, Community Impact Circles, Victim-Offender Conferences, accountability meetings, and harm reduction workshops were all physically represented through teen art and quotes from youth and family members. It was a unique way to get inside the stories that are told here every day. 

CRYJ has also placed a particular emphasis in the last year on destigmatizing conversations about mental health and seeking support when you need it. Our community has experienced a significant wave of teen suicides since 2020, and has seen the impacts of that experience and the pandemic on the mental health of the teens we work with. The effort to normalize mental health discussions has meant hosting regular workshops that involve organizations like Nate Chute Foundation and Tamarack Grief Resource Center and developing relationships with therapists in the Valley who accept Medicaid or can operate on a sliding scale – directly connecting our teens with those counselors when desired. 

We want to celebrate all the teens that have walked through our doors! So many have put in so much work addressing some tough stuff. As one youth recently told us:

I feel like I came in here hard headed and I thought CRYJ was just going to be people yelling at me about what not to do. I would tell someone who’s new to this process that it’s not just about getting in trouble. It’s so non judgmental and things go a lot deeper than you’re expecting when you feel safe. 

Where can people learn more about your work? 

Our website (www.restorativeyouthjustice.org) and social media (@cryj.mt on Instagram and Facebook) have more information on what we do, how to get in contact with us, and details on upcoming CRYJ events! 

How can people support your work? 

Be in touch! There are all kinds of opportunities: from volunteering to donating to organizational collaborations, restorative justice training workshops, and more! 

Is there anything that you would like to add? 

If you live in the Flathead Valley and are interested in being a Community Impact Circle volunteer, let us know via the volunteer form on our website. 

We are super excited to be connected with other organizations doing awesome work (like the Montana Innocence Project), and really look forward to future opportunities for collaboration!